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'Miss Frijoles' attack roils Latino-heavy congressional race in Texas

Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez is distancing himself from a blogger he paid who's using bigoted language to describe GOP opponent Rep. Mayra Flores.
Vicente Gonzalez. Mayra Flores.
Vicente Gonzalez. Mayra Flores.CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

A Texas blogger paid by Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez's campaign is attacking Republican opponent Rep. Mayra Flores as “Miss Frijoles” and a "cotton-pickin' liar," prompting a wave of denunciations by fellow Democrats.

The language first surfaced three days after Gonzalez’s campaign wrote a $1,200 check to The McHale Report blog June 24 for “advertising services,” according to the Democrat’s Federal Election Commission finance report.

But the blog, which has called Flores "Miss Frijoles" 21 times since then, has not published any Gonzalez ads.

Flores, in a Twitter post Monday, accused the Gonzalez campaign of paying “a local blogger to run hateful & racist ads against me,” a charge that the Gonzalez campaign and blogger Jerry McHale deny. They both told NBC News that the timing of the attacks were coincidental, that the congressman didn’t pay for any of the inflammatory posts, know about them or have any control over them.

“Of course, the congressman is against referring to Rep. Flores as ‘Miss Frijoles’ or a ‘cotton-picking liar’,” Gonzalez’s campaign manager, Collin Steele, wrote in a text message to NBC News, echoing the state Democratic Party chair and other Texas Democrats who denounced the language as well.

But McHale would not back down.

“I am a liberal Democrat. And it’s war against the Republican ... I’m going to be merciless with her,” he told NBC News.

The controversy, which illustrates the blurred lines between paying political bloggers for advertising and advocacy, is the latest flashpoint in the wild and rugged politics of Texas 34th Congressional District, a majority-Hispanic seat that runs along the state’s southeast border with Mexico and has become a national proving ground for GOP outreach to Hispanic voters.

Flores is the first congresswoman born in Mexico. Two years before her victory, then-President Donald Trump improved his margins in the district — along with most majority-Hispanic districts and counties nationwide — when compared to his 2016 numbers.

But Democrats note that Trump still lost within the boundaries of the 34th Congressional District, and they say Flores only won because the party didn’t spend much to contest her special election after then-Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat, unexpectedly left the seat to join a law firm that lobbies in Washington. Gonzalez decided to challenge Flores once the seat he currently holds, the 15th Congressional District, became more Republican-leaning after it was redrawn by the GOP-led Legislature during redistricting.

A week after Flores won, Gonzalez told Newsweek, “I wasn’t born in Mexico …  I didn’t come here through chain migration, I didn’t come through asylum or amnesty or whatever.” In his remarks, often associated with Republicans, Gonzalez also described Flores as “unqualified,” a criticism often considered sexist.

“Politics in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley is blood sport. It’s very personal. And they play to win,” said Colin Strother, a veteran Texas Democratic consultant.

Still, he said, the language in McHale’s blog and Gonzalez’s decision to advertise with him were surprising — Gonzalez last year paid McHale $1,000 for advertising, and the blog is full of posts with racist, crude and bigoted language, like the use of the N-word and derogatory references to women's private parts, including Flores’ body.

“The attitude doesn’t surprise me. The mindset doesn’t surprise me. A Democratic member spending money with someone using that kind of language? Yeah, that surprises me,” Strother said. “It’s a little outside the bounds. There are other places to spend your money.”

Other local candidates over the years have hired McHale for advertising, a nod to the salience of his blog, which earned him the sobriquet “Brownsville’s blogfather.” McHale acknowledges it’s hard to tell the difference to the untrained eye between his blog posts and ads from candidates, but he said he’s not a pay-for-play blogger and would attack Flores anyway because she's a Republican.

McHale said it was “perfect” to describe Flores as a “cotton-picking liar” because he doesn’t believe her story that she picked cotton as a farm laborer with her immigrant parents.

He also said he plans to compare Flores to Latino dishes.

“I don’t see it as a racist remark,” he said. “It’s just about food. It’s just satire. It’s just me making fun of her. When does political correctness go overboard?”

The timing of such attacks would come on the heels of a spokesman for first lady Jill Biden apologizing for her reference to tacos when praising the diversity of Latino communities at an event last week. Condemning her comments, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists said, "We are not tacos."

Chuck Rocha, a Texas Democrat who is one of the nation’s top Latino-outreach consultants, said the McHale blog's comments about Flores were clearly offensive: “I find it racist as a Mexican. All of those things are derogatory, no matter what your party is.”

Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who became the first Latino to win the post in 2012, sounded surprised when told of the posts about Flores.

“You’re kidding,” he said. "If it’s true, it’s improper. I don’t know who it is. I don’t know anything about it. I would be surprised if Congressman Gonzalez hid behind bloggers. That’s not his style.”

In her accusation on Twitter, though, Flores tried to flip things around on the blog attacks.

“I love frijoles & I grew up eating frijoles,” she said on Twitter. “I am not embarrassed of my upbringings & frijoles w/tortillas de harina is simply the best. Here’s to Miss Frijoles 2022 #TX34.”

Gonzalez, in his statement to NBC News, struck a similar tone.

“I agree that frijoles are delicious and good and am against all offensive language,” he said.

CORRECTION (July 19, 2022, 10:31 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the last time a Republican held the U.S. House seat in Texas now represented by Rep. Mayra Flores in the state’s new 34th Congressional District. Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold represented a similar district in the region from 2011 to 2013 before it was redrawn; Flores is not the first Republican to win the seat since 1870.